Thursday 24 August 2017

The Watsons by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's unfinished work, The Watsons (c.1804) is an exercise in frustration on many levels. The story is unfinished, unedited and unpolished, yet somehow it still sparkles with Austen's trademark wit and brilliance.

What could this story have been, if Austen had finished, edited and polished it?

Sara Morante (2012)

Just as we settle into the new story and work out who all the people are and how Jane feels about ends.

Was this a first draft written in one or two sittings? Did she have plans for how it would end? Why did she stop writing? And why was The Watsons left to languish on the unfinished pile?

Theories and speculation abound. Apparently she told Cassandra that her plan was for Papa Watson to die, forcing Emma to live with her older married brother. The unexpected death of Jane's own father around this time may have made this story line too personal and painful to continue.

But, perhaps, the most simple explanation of all, is that dear Jane simply did not live long enough. She only just finished Persuasion in time. Maybe, her next project would have been to reassess The Watsons? Or finish Sandition?

The fragment that we do have of The Watsons has so many familiar Austen-esque themes, settings and characters.

Money, education, social class all get a look in. We have 3-4 families in a neighbourhood (the Watsons, Edwards and Osbornes) with varying social status. They visit each other to attend balls and flirt. Emma is the youngest of six, but was sent away to live with a wealthy, but childless aunt and uncle (just like Jane's older brother in real life, or Fanny in Mansfield Park). However, an unfortunate second marriage on behalf of the aunt, forces Emma to return to her birth family. She has now been educated beyond that of her siblings and she struggles to understand their ways.

There's the lordly, aloof Osborne (Mr Darcy prototype?), the humble, authentic parson, Howard (Edward Ferris perhaps?) and the caddish Musgrave (Wickham/Henry Crawford?) all vying for the female attention. We see bad behaviour on display at the local ball and Emma's kindness in response. Silly, husband-hunting siblings (Lydia?) and Mary Edwards flirting with Sam Watson and a dashing young officer at the same time (Isabella Thorpe?)

The ill father was a common theme in her later writing (Mr Elliot and Mr Woodhouse) although they were often more hypochondriac than really unwell. Mr Dashwood was obviously ill enough to die in Sense and Sensibility and this was Austen's intention for Mr Watson too. S&S was started six years after her own father's death and it's possible to wonder if her plans for The Watsons morphed into this very similar story of four women suddenly thrown at the mercy of their male relatives after the death of the husband/father figure.

The frustrating part is that we will never know.

Several modern authors have attempted to finish The Watsons, but I cannot go there. I will have to live with my frustration and disappointment.

The Watsons was not Austen's finest work, but the kernel of excellence was evident. Jane showed with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice that she was perfectly capable of starting again or thoroughly overhauling an old story to find a better way forward.

If only....

I found these gorgeous images (above & below) on Sara Morante's blog that she prepared for a Nordica Libros edition of Los Watson in 2012. The video is a visual treat - do yourself a favour and click play!

1787-1793 - Short works & juvenilia written
1790 - Wrote Love and Freindship
1794 - Began Lady Susan
1795 - Wrote Elinor and Marianne
1796 - Began First Impressions
1798 - Begins Northanger Abbey (known as Susan, then Catherine)
1800 - moved to Bath
1804 - Begins The Watsons (and Northanger Abbey submitted to publisher, but not published)
1805 - Jane's father dies suddenly (Lady Susan finished)
1808 - Moved into Chawton House with her mother and Cassandra
1809 - Begins work on Sense and Sensibility
1810 - Sense and Sensibility finished
1811 - Begins Mansfield Park (Sense and Sensibility published, First Impressions revised)
1813 - Pride and Prejudiced published
1814 - Mansfield Park published (begins work on Emma)
1815 - Emma published (begins work on The Elliots/Persuasion)
1816 - Jane becomes ill (finished Persuasion)
1817 - Begins work on The Brothers/Sandition (Jane dies July 18) Northanger Abbey & Persuasion published

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous25/8/17

    Same with Sanditon. I keep wondering what could have been, how she would have reworked them. Although, it's fitting in a way that Persuasion, that most elegant and elegiac of novels, should be her last completed one.


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